The Arab Spring & the American Winter: Democracy, Women's Rights and Religious Fundamentalism
by Michael McStokes
Now that the initial euphoria over the Arab Spring has worn off, a more sobering prospect has come to the fore. These people who have waited so long, and who have fought so hard for their democratic freedoms, appear to be quickly throwing away the same by handing power to Islamist parties. The threats are many, and they are varied. There are those that accuse Islamists of hijacking the Arab Spring, those who worry Israel will be unable to weather this “perfect storm”, and those who say that the rise of such parties have turned the promising Arab Spring into a dark and foreboding Arab Winter. But regardless of which angle you look at it from, the common theme is a genuine concern over the rise of these religiously extreme parties, and the detrimental effects they will no doubt have on the fledgling democratic institutions in these countries. And how could we not be worried? Those of us in the United States of America have seen first hand just how dangerous the rise of religious extremists can be.
But aren’t we facing the same threats closer to home? More than fifty years ago, one of America’s most loved Presidents gave a speech where he vociferously defended the importance of freedom of religion, as well as the separation of church and state set out in our Constitution. While in that more conservative, and yes, some might say more backward time, concerns over JFK’s Catholicism might have necessitated such a forceful defense of our Constitutional principles, surely in this day and age, these ideas are non-controversial, are accepted as part of the fabric of American culture and society. Surely we do not need some brave individual to tell us:
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
Surely all of this goes without saying, right? Unfortunately the answer is no. The sentiments expressed in the speech above apparently are controversial, and not just to some vocal and rabid minority, but to one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for President. Rick Santorum has said that reading that speech, hearing the President of the United States defend the Constitutional separation of church and state, “makes me throw up”. Perhaps this should not be surprising coming from a man whose own aid described him in 2005 as “a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate,” but it is still worrying coming from the person currently running in a close second for the Presidential nomination for one of our two major parties.
And the idea that continuing to separate church and state in our country is anathema is not limited to Rick Santorum alone. Another leading candidate for the Presidential nomination from the Republican party, Newt Gingrich, has gone on record as saying we need a government that respects “our religion,” not “every religion on the planet."
But the danger does not stop there. Religiously extreme parties not only try and prevent others from practicing their own religion, but they also try and jam their religious ideals down the throats of everyone under their control. Isn’t this why people were so worried when Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party changed the law to allow female students to wear headscarves on campus? Such an overt symbol of one’s religion can be offensive to others, and allowing it in public universities was thought to be an attack on the country’s secular principles. But wait, doesn’t the US suffer from the same disease? Don’t we have people that, if given the power, would immediately reinstate overt religiosity into public places, including, in a direct comparison to the situation in Turkey, our public schools?
Perhaps more concerning, however, is that the threats associated with the rise of religiously extreme parties do not stop when it comes to religious freedoms. Once they gain a toehold, these religiously extreme parties are not content to stop at preventing others from the free practice of their own religion, or even in trying to force their religious way of thinking down the throats of others. Rather, they try and expand their reach, forcing their religious beliefs on others in all aspects of life.
For example, look at women’s rights. This has been a chief worry of those concerned about the future of the Middle East. One very worrying trend in this area is how Islamist parties largely exclude women from participating in the political process. For example, female candidates made up only 16% of the average Islamist party list in the Egyptian election. If they are not allowed to represent themselves, how are women going to be able to defend their rights in a patriarchal and religiously minded system?
For an illustration of just how wrong things can go, take a look at recent trends in the United States. Look for instance at Congressional Representative Darrell Issa’s recent hearing on contraception hosted on Capitol Hill, where not a SINGLE woman was allowed to speak. The exclusion of women from the discussion did not even stop there, though. The media was nearly just as misogynistic in its coverage of the discussion. On the political shows that later discussed the topic, only 4 out of the 56 guests during the month of February were women (7% for those counting along at home, or less than half the average rate of the Islamist parties in Egypt).
And while the exclusion of women from the discussion is worrying, it is the detrimental effect such exclusion has on their rights and wellbeing that is truly concerning. The world was aghast, and rightly so, when an Muslim woman in Afghanistan was forced to marry the man who raped her, or be forced to spend years in prison for her “crime” of being a rape victim. Should we be any less offended by the results of excluding women from the political debate over their rights and their own bodies in this country? Should we be less embarrassed that virtually every Republican candidate for President is Anti-Choice? Should we be ashamed that the potential future leader of this country will be someone who is vocally opposed to something that is deemed a human right in Europe? Should we be less horrified at the steps the religiously extreme are willing to take to not-so-gradually claw back women’s rights when they cannot overturn them whole hog on a proposed Virginia law that would have required women to undergo an invasive, trans-vaginal ultrasound before they could get an abortion. And though Virginia appears to have come to its senses (at least somewhat), Alabama, Texas and Arizona appear to be ready to pick up right where that state left off. Why get so worked up about things happening halfway around the world, when much closer to home we are facing the same dangerous onslaught from religious extremists?
But maybe I am being unfair. The Islamist parties winning power in the post-Arab spring are, after all, trying to temper their actions and rule in coalition to demonstrate their good intentions to the rest of the world. Quoting a researcher for Human Rights Watch, "However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist 'takeover' completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour (sic) of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists." No one would accuse the main political parties in the United States of doing the same.
Michael McStokes is a political correspondent for Slurve, and is attempting to make us into a respectable publication.
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